While it can be thrilling, ascending a mast is not for the faint-hearted.
It should be a task undertaken with extreme care and caution, especially in rough waters.
But there are times when the inevitable happens, and you need to go aloft to perform vital repairs. Sails rip, rigging becomes tangled or snaps and often electronic equipment needs attention.
So, despite reservations, your only option is to go aloft.
Let’s look at the best tools for the job and examine some of the best mast climbing equipment around.
The Risks of Climbing a Mast
- Getting stranded at the top of the mast
- Cutting yourself on sharp edges
- Become incapacitated while aloft
- Lose control of the boat
- Hurt crew or damage boat by dropped tools
- Risk of damage to expensive equipment
Safety First: Tips on Safe Mast Climbing
As I’ve made clear, going aloft is not one of my favorite boating activities. So whenever I’m called upon to swallow my fears and scale the heights, I like to have all the safety aspects covered.
We have covered harnesses and bosun’s chairs in a previous article, but it’s still worth looking at other safety equipment and considerations.
- Safety Helmet â€” Always make sure you don protective headgear in case something goes wrong, and you find yourself heading towards the deck at speed. Sure, the safety helmet isn’t going to take the sting away, but it might be the difference between temporary and permanent damage.
- Use Two Halyards â€” That way, you have a primary and secondary rope in case of emergencies.
- Attach a Downhaul Line â€” If you have crew, get them to grab hold of the downhaul line so that you minimize any swinging.
- Attach a Lifeline â€” Clipping a line to your lifejacket and attaching it to a free halyard will prevent you from falling and limit any damage to you or your equipment.
- Keep Tools Secure â€” Keeping your tools in a tool belt or bag tied to your harness ensures no one gets a bump on the head from a spanner.
- Communicate â€” Communication with your crew below is essential, so either work out a few signals or take a walkie-talkie.
- Â Take a Sharp Knife â€” You never know when you’ll have to cut yourself free in an emergency, especially if ever dangerously entangled.
- Climb the Windward Side â€” If you’re at sea, climb the windward side of the mast to ensures gravity pulls you against the mast rather than trying to swing next to it. This reduces the risk of swinging and collision.
- Make Your Crew Observe You â€” Having your crew watch every move ensures that the minute something goes awry, they are there to act. It’s no good having them messing about the boat, unaware of you swinging wildly from the halyard.
- Don’t Stand Directly Below â€” Don’t stand directly below the person up the mast. Falling objects can be dangerous.
- Work in Dry Weather â€” This depends on the emergency and the conditions, but where possible, don’t climb the mast in wet or windy weather. Wet surfaces make it difficult to grip and increase your risk of danger.
Different Methods of Climbing a Mast
There are numerous ways people use to ascend their masts. For instance, winches, ascenders, ladders or a hybrid version of the ladder.
- Winches/Pulleys â€” These consist of a system of pulleys and winches that enable the individual or crew member to raise the harness or bosuns chair to the desired height. When they’re at the top, simply tie off and complete the repair work. When done, they untie and descend.
- Ascenders â€” These ingenious devices allow you to climb using your hands and feet. They work by a series of clamps that let you slide it up the rope, but when you pull it in the opposite direction, the toothed cam grips to the rope and holds you safely in place.
- Ladders â€” The ladder is the most basic way of scaling the heights of the mast. It straps to the mast to hold it in place as you climb. Typically, they are either webbing ladders with reinforced rungs, meaning they’re easy to store away. This is important because there isn’t much space on a boat, or there are telescoping ladders that extend. MastMate offers a webbing flexible ladder that can be hauled up or down just like the mainsail.
- Mast Steps â€” These are a series of metal steps that attach to the mast’s side, enabling you to climb its height like a ladder. Unlike a ladder, these steps are permanently fixed to the mast, and often they fold away for neatness. However, you should never attempt to climb the mast without safety gear like a harness, no matter what your level of expertise.
Choose the Best Ropes
While the ascenders and pulley climbing systems get all the attention, let’s not forget the role that ropes have to play here. Remember, your climbing system is only as good as the lines you attach them to, so choose your ropes with care. But what should you look for?
- Rope Diameter â€” Most climbing kits and ascenders accept ropes with a diameter of eight to 12 millimeters. You can get thicker varieties, but depending on the rope construction, fatter lines aren’t always the strongest.
- Material â€” Polyester seems to be the number one choice, but you can buy hemp (Manila), nylon and hybrid materials where the core is made from strands of polypropylene. The important thing is to look for a rope that’s UV resistant and can live with the rigors of life on the sea. You also need a line with high abrasion resistance. The last thing you want is the rope snapping when you’re aloft.
- Construction â€” Look for a rope that has a double-braid. And if it has a core, even better! I’m not sure I would choose any other variety.
- Type â€” Static ropes have many uses, and for mast climbing, their lower elasticity is perfect. However, for safety, a dynamic line would be a good choice too. Should you slip, the added stretch in the rope will dampen your body’s sudden impact as the rope tenses. Dynamic ropes are the preferred choice for climbers for this reason.
The Best Mast Climbers & Ropes
The 6 Best Mast ClimbersTable could not be displayed.
This climbing kit is geared towards the rock climbing community, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted for boaters.
It’s a pulley system, designed to haul you to the top of the mast. The kit consists of two pulleys, two carabiners and a length of cord. The pulleys have a maximum load-bearing strength of 7,100 lbs and coupled with the tensile strength of 7,100 lbs on the cord, you can see why this kit can take on a considerable amount of weight.
It can be used in conjunction with an ascender, or you can employ crew members to haul you up.
The pulleys are made from aluminum, and the carabiners are constructed of anodized aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, making them durable and lightweight.
This is another pulley system with a twin sheave. It comes with a 250-foot maximum length of 12.5 mm polyester rope, which has a 7,700-pound tensile breaking strength. So, whatever your weight, this rope will hold you safely.
The double pulleys are constructed of stainless steel for added durability and lifespan. And with a ballbearing mechanism, it will deliver a smooth action when ascending.
It might be better to attempt going aloft with two people when using this system, as it works better when someone is holding the rope and hauling you up.
Pulley climbing systems are popular because they have multiple applications. This Youngneer climbing pulley is no exception, but where it excels is in climbing.
It has twin bearings that are highly polished and guaranteed not to get stuck. And the pulley housing is constructed from an aluminum-magnesium alloy with elements of stainless steel. This makes it hardwearing, robust and lightweight, making it the ideal tool to use when going aloft. You will need to source your rope, but this pulley system will take a 12.5 mm diameter with no problems at all.
It comes with a stainless steel carabiner and the maximum breaking weight of the system is 6,700 lbs. So while it isn’t as strong as the GM climbing kit, it will still take your weight and save you half the purchase cost.
While this hand ascender isn’t a complete climbing kit like the others featured so far, it’s a useful tool to have around when going aloft.
The maximum size diameter of rope it takes is 8-12 mm, so it should work well with any lines you have on the boat. It would be effective when combined with a harness or bosuns chair, especially if you are ascending the mast solo.
This hand ascender is constructed of aluminum alloy, although the cam mechanism is stainless steel. This means it’s corrosive resistant, rustproof and lightweight. It has a maximum weight ratio of 899 lbs, and the handle is rubber-coated for better grip and comfort.
Best of all, it only costs a fraction of the price of the GM climbing kit.
This PETZL pulley is designed to be lightweight, weighing just 145 grams, and durable.
It has a working load capacity of 1,350 lbs, but the breaking capacity is 3,600 lbs. It means this pulley will take your weight, and any additional tools you will need.
The construction is high-grade aluminum, and this pulley has a sheave mounted on sealed ball bearings and a toothed cam that holds you firmly in place. The cam is also self-cleaning and operates even when your ropes are frozen.
It accepts ropes of 8 to 11 mm in diameter and is designed to be a 4:1 pulley and climbing system when used with the JAG pulley.
This Climbing Technology RollnLock is a mini ascender, which can be used as a spring-operated cam for rope climbing, a sliding lock for use as a pulley and a winch for hauling light loads.
It has a working load capacity of 1,125 lbs and a breaking strength of 4,500 lbs, so it may be small, but it is also mighty.
It is super-lightweight, weighing just 80 grams. That’s almost half the weight of the PETZL JAG!
This ascender works on wet and dirty ropes and can be used for adjusting your position when coupled with 10 to 16 mm webbing.
Climbing Technology has positioned the price on this product somewhere in the middle, so while it isn’t the cheapest, buying it won’t break the bank either.
The 4 Best Ropes For Mast ClimbingTable could not be displayed.
This Blue Ox yacht-grade rope comes in 100 feet lengths and is constructed of double-braided polyester.
It is easy to splice and has a tensile strength of 8,400 lbs, so it won’t let you down. The diameter of this rope is slightly larger than some, at 12.7 mm, but it should still accommodate most of the mast climbing kits I have featured.
Because it’s yacht braid, it is resistant to the effects of the sun, and all weather conditions. It is also abrasion-resistant too, which means you won’t suffer any snaps or breaks.
This rock climbing rope comes in maximum lengths of 94 feet and is 12 mm in diameter, so it will accommodate all of the mast climbing methods I have featured.
It is constructed from high-strength polyester with a polypropylene core that gives this rope a breaking load of almost 6,600 lbs. With that kind of maximum capacity, even I would trust this rope, and I hate heights!
This is a static rope, so it has less elasticity than other lines. What this means is that should you slip and fall, it will be less forgiving when it reaches full tension, which might result in injury. That said, you don’t want too much stretch in the rope if you are working aloft, because it will feel less stable.
This Singing Rock rope has an 11.2 mm diameter, and it comes in 150, 200, 300 and 600 feet lengths. You can also get this rope in a 10.5 mm diameter, which the makers claim it is the strongest 10.5 mm rope on the market.
The core strength comes from their blend of materials and the weave. It has a maximum breaking weight of 7,800 lbs, so for a skinny rope, it can withstand a lot of tension. Also, because this is a static line, it has less stretch than dynamic ropes and might be better for climbing the mast.
This rope isn’t cheap, retailing at over $550 for the maximum length of 600 feet, but then again, I never trust the inexpensive lines, because they cost less for a reason.
This X Ben rope is constructed of polyester with a 13-strand nylon core, which makes the line incredibly strong.
It comes in a wide range of lengths, starting at 32 feet and going up to 500 feet, so no matter what the application, this rope will deal with it admirably.
Both ends are sewn with two stainless steel hooks, making them easy to attach, and it is lightweight.
It is also tear-resistant, low-elasticity, and it has a load capacity of 3,300 lbs.
Climbing aloft is not something that should be taken lightly. It is probably one of the most dangerous jobs on the boat, and as such, the right equipment makes the task a whole lot safer.
Having the correct mast climbing equipment means that you get the job done quickly, but also without incident and to a good standard.
When you have the proper tools for the job, it means you will avoid the chances of an accident and potential injury. Safety is the number one priority, so when you have selected the mast climber that’s right for you, be sure to invest as much time in choosing the proper ropes.
Static or dynamic ropes have their pros and cons, so you must decide which is the best choice for going aloft. Whichever you pick, make sure that it is abrasion-proof and resistant to the UV rays of the sun. A sturdy rope may just save your life one day.
Mark WeirÂ lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in hisÂ wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.Â